EDITOR’S NOTE: Attending to Distraction

The swirl of life and its accompanying emotions can leave us feeling unfocused and frazzled — and also teach us a thing or two if we’re willing to listen.

Experience Life editor in chief Jamie Martin

I’ve been a bit distracted lately. By the ongoing research and news about the pandemic, by the challenges of being at home so much with my family while also working, by the heightened emotions I’m feeling as a result of all of this, including anxiety and grief. My attention is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

As I write this column from my home office, for instance, the deadline just two days away, my 7-year-old is sitting on the floor asking for words or phrases that fit an acrostic for her nine-letter name. Amid typing these first few sentences, I also helped her create this one for my name:

J = Joyful

A = Ambitious

M = Mommy

I = Intelligent

E = Exerciser

We spent a fair amount of time googling ideas for each letter, which left us laughing and being silly. Moments like this with my family have been good distractions — shining lights in an otherwise tough period, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Some of the other distractions, however, I could do without: the persistent urge to check the news and social media; the incoming emails that “need” my immediate attention; the stream of worries, ruminations, and self-critiques flowing through my mind.

We’ve written about this, I often think to myself. You have the tools to overcome this at your fingertips. Why aren’t you using them? I feel some shame for being unable to channel deeper focus after doing this for so long.

Awareness of the distraction is, of course, part of the work: Noticing when I’ve gotten off track (ideally, without self-judgment) and then intentionally refocusing — as many times as needed until it comes more naturally. Even then, it’s a continual practice because life and all its emotions are constantly changing.

In an Experience Life article on this topic from a couple of years ago, senior editor Heidi Wachter quotes Richard Davidson, PhD, from his best-selling book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: “Emotional cues are not only ubiquitous in our lives and environments, they are also strong distractions, often interfering with our ability to both accomplish tasks and maintain equanimity.”

Heidi goes on to write, “The power of emotion to affect our ability to focus led the neuroscientist to include attention . . . as one dimension of what he calls the brain’s ‘emotional style.’ Our emotional style dictates, with some consistency, how we respond to our experiences, and it is governed by specific, identifiable, measurable brain circuits.”

In stressful and uncertain times, particularly, my emotional style tends to fall toward the distracted end of the attention spectrum; there always seems to be something to pull my focus away from what’s right in front of me. So I need resources to help me stay calm and get back on track.

Sometimes, three deep breaths and a mantra is all it takes. Recently, though, I’ve tried a few different tactics: taking a short, technology-free walk; playing a game with my kids; reading a chapter from a book; enjoying a cup of coffee while talking with my husband.

Stepping away, even briefly, is sometimes all it takes to recenter and reclaim my focus. To find the words. To remember “why.” To rediscover me and what matters most amid the chaos.

The distraction is telling us some­thing if we’re willing to pause and listen to it. Perhaps what we do next will be even better, more meaningful, more intentional, if we give it the attention it deserves.

is Experience Life’s editor in chief. Follow her on Instagram @jamiemartinel.

Photography by Sara Rubinstein

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